Alcohol Marketing

Opinion — Wilcox: Bans on alcohol advertising don’t make much sense

Friday, Jan. 30, 2015 — By Gary Wilcox – Special to the American-Statesman

The Super Bowl is upon us, and watchers will be treated to some of the best commercials of the year. Once again, among the ads’ sponsors will be producers of alcoholic products who many times make some of the highest rated commercials of the game.

But new this year brings increasing regulatory pressure on alcohol advertising. As a researcher who studies advertising — particularly alcohol advertising — I think this increase in regulatory pressure doesn’t make much sense.

The Los Angeles City Council recently passed a ban on alcohol advertising on municipal property, substantially reducing the number of outdoor advertising locations available to alcohol advertisers. Philadelphia already has in place a similar ban, and in San Francisco, alcohol advertising is not permitted on any public transportation.

Around the world, Turkey recently enacted restrictions prohibiting not only the advertising, but also the sale of alcoholic beverages in certain settings such as sponsored activities and festivals. Even the placement of alcohol logos was restricted to only certain establishments. Russia banned alcohol advertising on television, radio, the Internet, public transportation, billboards and in all print media in an attempt to affect that country’s high level of consumption.

All of these restrictions and bans on alcohol advertising come at a time when total per capita consumption of alcohol in the U.S. has remained mostly constant during the past 40 years, and worldwide consumption has been stable since 1990.

So, why the most recent concern regarding alcohol advertising?

Research studying the impact of alcohol advertising bans on the reduction of alcohol consumption has provided conflicting results. For example, a comprehensive study in 17 countries for the years 1977-1995 showed that advertising bans did not decrease alcohol consumption or abuse. However, in a similar study that examined data from 20 countries over 26 years, researchers concluded that alcohol advertising bans decreased alcohol consumption during the period they examined.

So, it appears that ad bans are a potential solution for policymakers interested in reducing alcohol consumption, although the evidence shows inconsistent results. But this doesn’t take into account a more important issue.

With per capita consumption remaining mostly constant during the past 100 years, it seems clear that in the established, mature marketplace for alcohol, competition for a greater share of sales is intense and constant. Advertising has become the most visible ingredient of the overall marketing strategy. Companies try to increase their revenue through stronger, more innovative marketing efforts. For example, liquor brands that took advantage of the recent ability to advertise in the electronic media saw market share gains as a result.

Permitting the market to operate freely encourages competition not only among brands but among categories of alcoholic beverages as well. Published studies have provided evidence of consumption changes not only between brands but also across categories of alcoholic beverages during the past 40-plus years. All of this has taken place without much change in per capita consumption for more than a century.

Proposals to restrict or curtail truthful, commercial messages about a legal product work against rational public policy. By limiting restrictions and allowing the market to function freely, companies can compete using advertising and media strategies while not affecting the total amount of alcohol consumed. Consumers are given the choice of what products to buy and the ability to decide based on competitive product offerings.

Although criticisms of alcohol advertising and promotional methods abound, implementation of the only remedies that would restrict or overly regulate such communication activities usually do not have the desired effect of reducing consumption. Instead, such restrictions would only serve to limit a company’s ability to employ marketing communication strategies as a means to gain market share.

A more logical alternative is to get as much information as possible out to the public about the problems of alcohol abuse and misuse. The way to get that information out to the society is to get rid of restrictions or bans on communication about alcohol and encourage all viewpoints to communicate so our society makes an autonomous, rational choice on alcohol.

Bans on alcohol advertising simply don’t make a lot of sense.

Wilcox is the John A. Beck Centennial Professor in Communication in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Texas at Austin.

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